(Jonah’s shade plant provides a graphic metaphor for the message of this Biblical book.; August 2015)
Information about plants, animals, and geography often adds meaning, power, and depth to Biblical narratives and metaphors. A plant mentioned, seemingly in passing, in the Book of Jonah illustrates this principle as a vivid symbol of the book’s theology and message. The story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, is well known. Why did he resist God’s instruction to exhort the inhabitants of Nineveh to improve their behavior? Many Midrashim and rabbinic commentators suggest that Jonah was motivated by a fear that his fellow Israelites would look badly in comparison to this gentile city if he were successful. This explains Jonah’s frustration at the Ninevites’ repentance and God’s decision to spare them. Indeed, much of the book seems aimed at establishing the universality of the One God—Consider, for example, the futility of Jonah’s attempt to hide from God by leaving the land of Israel, and the humane behavior of the non-Jewish sailors who struggle to row to safety rather than sacrifice Jonah to appease God’s apparent anger.
After completing his prophecy in Nineveh, Jonah climbs a nearby hill and sits down to see what will become of the city. The book records that he sat under a plant and was delighted with the shade that it provided. The plant is described in Hebrew as a kikayon, translated in most English Bibles as gourd, a member of the cucurbit family. Why is this detail included in the narrative?
Many cucurbits, such as squash, cucumbers, melons, and gourd plants have large leaves that could provide shade. However, they typically grow as vines that rest on the ground. Most of these vines are hollow, and lack the strength to support their fruits if they are grown upright on trellises. Thus, they are not likely candidates for Jonah’s shade plant. In modern Hebrew, kikayon refers not to a cucurbit, but to the castor bean plant, Ricinus communis. This plant’s firm stalk enables it to grow up to four meters in height, and its large, abrasive leaves, similar in appearance and texture to those of cucurbits, provide shade. As Jonah’s story implies, it grows quickly and is short-lived. There is ample support for the identification of the kikayon with the castor bean, including a Talmudic eyewitness identification by Raba bar Bar Chanah (Shabbat 21a), similar names for the castor bean plant in Greek (xixi), Egyptian (kiki), and Assyrian (kukanitum), and descriptions by Rashi and the Metsudat Tzion in their commentaries on Jonah 4:6. Marcus Jastrow, Judah Low, the Mandelkorn concordance, and Brown, Driver, and Briggs’s dictionary of Biblical Hebrew all cite this translation with approval.
The castor bean plant is notorious for the highly potent poison known as ricin contained in its seeds. Ricin has been called the most powerful poison in nature. This may or may not be precisely true, but it is certainly extremely toxic. The castor bean’s upright growth habit, large leaves, and its rapid growth and decline fit the story of Jonah much better than any cucurbit. It has deep symbolic value as well that may explain why the Book of Jonah considers the identity of the shade plant significant enough to mention. Jonah clearly did not want to warn the inhabitants of Nineveh of their need to repent and reform their behavior. When they do so, and God accepts the sincerity of their prayers and acts of charity, Jonah’s only reaction is resentment and embarrassment that his warning has apparently been discredited. God then rebukes him for caring more about the castor bean plant that grew and died in a short time than he did for a city of thousands of people. The image of Jonah, proud, bitter, and resentful, delighting in the shade of a highly poisonous plant, is an ideal metaphor for a person nursing his grievances and brooding over his own venomous thoughts.
What moral lesson, if any, should we draw from this story? Jonah was an individual who allowed his own feelings and loyalties to interfere with his openness to God’s commands. Jonah viewed Nineveh as an enemy city, one that was not worthy of his concern. As I write this essay, we are in the middle of the month of Elul, approaching Yom Kippur, when the Book of Jonah is read publicly. We each have our own Nineveh, a blind spot or object of contempt to which we do not do justice. May we each use this season of self-examination to identify and overcome our own resistance to what God asks of us.